Last week we read submissions for Rakehell, our sibling mag of swashbuckling adventure fiction. We’ll have more to say about the submission round soon, but right now we want to talk about story openings.
Specifically, let’s talk about how to deliver backstory in the beginning of your piece. This is something we saw a lot of writers struggle in our Rakehell submissions. Starting any story—especially a tale of swashbuckling action—with an info dump is the kiss of death for pacing and excitement.
So let’s look at an example of a story that delivers backstory in a natural, engaging way. Amanda Cook’s “Weaving Serenity” was the first story we bought for Wyngraf #1, and a big part of what sold it was the first few paragraphs.
We’ll go paragraph by paragraph and talk about what works—and, more importantly, how it works.
Take it away, Amanda!
Introducing the Protagonist and Their World
Eloise sat at her worktable, pulling thread after thread of gossamer energy from the earth. It flowed into her feet up through her limbs to her fingertips, pulsing like the blood in her veins. She twined the strands deftly together, forming a sturdy rope of serenity that she wove into the fabric of her neighbor’s quilt. The patchwork gleamed before settling into its former cozy beauty. Wiping her brow with a blouse sleeve, she blew out a satisfied breath.
From the very first sentence, we have a protagonist. We don’t know who Eloise is yet, but we meet her working magic. An active protagonist is crucial, and there’s no better way to establish that than to have them doing something—not just standing around thinking—when they’re introduced.
Next we get a sentence describing Eloise’s magic. It’s physical, literally grounded. We can feel it.
Then we learn what Eloise is doing: tying the magical strands into “a sturdy rope of serenity” and weaving it into her neighbor’s quilt. (Hey, it’s the title of the story!) This sentence does two key things. First, it introduces novelty. How many fantasy stories have you read where magic is about weaving ropes of serenity? Just this one. (You have read Wyngraf, right?) But the sentence also tells us about Eloise: she’s working magic for her neighbor. That little detail tells us so much. It situates Eloise in a community and suggests a giving, caring personality.
Another sentence of description—again, the magic is made physical—and then Eloise is done. We learn how hard this work is, but also that Eloise finds it satisfying.
Look at how much we’ve learned about our protagonist from just one paragraph. She’s active, she’s skilled, she helps her community, she works hard but she doesn’t mind. At no point does Amanda tell us any of this. She shows us.
The weaving had been particularly tricky. Not impossible, but it was always difficult to affix the earth’s energy to something lacking the natural rhythms of life. Eloise ran a hand along the indigo squares and flaxen triangles. The quilt would last a while before her weaving faded, hopefully until the neighbor’s grandbaby slept through the night.
The second paragraph mostly reinforces the first. All our initial impressions—magic is earthy and challenging, Eloise is talented, Eloise cares about her neighbors—are confirmed. But again, this is done through details, not exposition.
“Mummy! Rhoda won’t let me toast the bread!”
“Shush, Lily! I told you to wait until I could help you.”
“I’ll be there in a minute, girls!” Eloise called into their cottage kitchen from the front room she had transformed into her weaving shop.
She glanced through the shop’s only window. With their snow-capped peaks awash in sunset, the mountains taunted her from a distance, reminding her of what she was missing.
Another fact about Eloise: she’s mother to two girls, Rhoda and Lily. Not only that, she works at home from a converted room and sometimes stares longingly out the window. That’s something many parents can relate to, especially during a pandemic. This balance between work and family will be the main theme of the story.
Setting the Hook(s)
Eloise startled, the greeting yanking her from her reverie. It was too late for customers, yet the voice had come from the front door.
A stranger arrives, kicking off the plot. Notice how Amanda handles this interruption differently from the one from Rhoda and Lily. Not only is Eloise startled (her kids didn’t surprise her with their yelling), she notes that the newcomer has arrived after hours. In the world of the story, this could turn out to be some totally innocuous event, but as readers, we immediately know something’s up.
“Good evening,” she said, squinting at the newcomer clad in bright steel. “How may I be of service to you?”
The stranger stepped into the room, and Eloise knew them immediately by their scuffed armor and the long sword at their hip. She bobbed a curtsy, as befitting the customer’s station as a Calmer.
These four sentences sold the story.
The trick to surprising readers is the Rule of Three: it takes two times to set an expectation. The third time, break it. So Eloise sees someone “clad in bright steel.” Then she gets a better look at “their scuffed armor and the long sword at their hip.”
Expectation set: it’s a knight, right? A warrior back from some battle?
Nope: the stranger is a Calmer.
Now, we don’t know yet what a Calmer actually is or does. But, importantly, Amanda doesn’t use an obscure or made-up word here. Just from their title, we can guess what a Calmer might be, and it’s definitely not what we thought from the scuffed armor and sword.
Expectation broken—and just like that, we’re hooked.
From the corner of her eye, she saw Rhoda in the kitchen doorway follow her lead while Lily stood chewing on the tail of her plait.
“Are you Calmer Eloise of Leafside?” The newcomer’s words were rushed and breathy.
The next sentence ups the tension. Not only is there a stranger on Eloise’s doorstep, her young daughters are watching her handle it. The theme of work versus family is back. Note also how Amanda establishes the children’s ages and personalities: the older Rhoda curtsies, while Lily chews her hair. And Rhoda is imitating her mother. This is foreshadowing for the rest of the story (which you’ve read, right?).
Then Amanda hits us with another hook: Eloise is a Calmer too! This homebound mom is actually some kind of magical knight, just like the battered, breathless stranger. Not only that, the stranger seems to be coming to Eloise for help. There’s more to our hero than we thought.
I could keep going line by line, and there would be something to learn at every step, but that would take forever. Instead I’m going to skip ahead a little to demonstrate one more essential technique.
We’ve talked about issues delivering exposition before (scroll down to Too Much Expository Telling). Our advice: “[S]trive to integrate exposition into the story naturally. Your protagonist can deliver key facts here and there as they become important, but even better is to make those key facts a source of conflict in the story.”
Let’s watch Amanda do exactly that: deliver exposition in the form of conflict.
“My name is Alana of Eastcliff. I’ve come on behalf of my commander, your spouse.”
Eloise’s breath hitched. “Jeshua? What’s the matter? Where is he? He isn’t—?”
“He’s well,” Alana said, extending a gauntleted hand in case Eloise should fall. “At least, he was when I left him. The raids aren’t going as planned. We’ve encountered… unforeseen difficulties.”
Alana ducked their chin, locks of blonde hair obscuring their eyes. “There are more dragons than were first accounted for, Mistress. We thought we knew them all by their wings and coloration, but no.” Alana winced, afraid to go on. “We must contend with hatchlings now.”
This is about as close as “Weaving Serenity” gets to an infodump. We learn that Eloise’s husband commands a group of Calmers, they’re raiding dragon lairs, and things aren’t going well. But there’s conflict here, within Eloise, as her fears for her husband threaten to overwhelm her.
You may have noticed I spent more words dissecting and analyzing the opening paragraphs of “Weaving Serenity” than Amanda did writing them. That’s no coincidence. The amount of work every sentence does is very intentional on Amanda’s part. She’s delivering a ton of information—about our protagonist, her world, the story’s theme, the core conflict—in less space than it takes to describe it directly. And the story is moving forward the whole time.
If that sounds hard, it is! Writing like this is a skill. It takes thought, practice, and revision.
But once you get the hang of it, you’ll make a lot of purchasing editors happy.